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Season Preview: Evan Longoria

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Longoria has long been the face of the Rays’ franchise, but he entered the 2016 season with a few question marks about his offensive production. While few doubted the 30 year old could be at the very least an average third baseman, there were concerns about a drop in his OBP and and a pretty dramatic decline in his ISO (from .230 in 2013 to .151 in 2014).

To many observers, this represented Longoria’s new normal. In the eyes of Sports Illustrated columnist Chris Corcoran: “this appears to be who Longoria is now,” “there’s minimal hope for a rebound,” and “his bat noticeably slowed.” With such lowered expectations, perhaps it was finally time for the Rays to resign themselves to the belief that the second most valuable offensive player in all of baseball from 2008-2015 was on the decline.

The Rebound

Reports of Longoria’s decline, however, were apparently premature. 2016 wasn’t his best offensive year, but his numbers were far closer to those of his prime, as he hit 36 homers to go along with 45 extra base hits. At first glance, you might think it was the product of good luck and that regression is likely, but the truth is that this resurgence appears to be no fluke.

For one, Longoria has historically been tremendous against left handed pitching to the tune of a 142 wRC+, but he was almost 10 percent below league average this season. Considering his BABIP against lefties was 40 points lower than he’s had over the last 5 years, he actually could have had an even more dynamic year.

Secondly, he continued to be more aggressive at the plate. Take a look at plate discipline profile for this season compared to his career:

The numbers certainly support the notion that Longo has been pressing more. His higher swing rates are accompanied by a drop in BB%, so it’s not entirely a positive development. But he clearly went for power over OBP in 2016.

In 2016, Longoria combined his aggressive approach with an altered swing path and stance to get more loft under the ball. This evidenced by his HR/FB, which even in his “off” years has historically been above average. In 2016 it jumped to 15.5%, a shade better than his career number, accompanied by a 6% increase in fly balls. If you want more of a breakdown, check out a piece by Eno Harris who wrote about Longoria’s batted ball profile and mechanical changes on Fangraphs.

Of particular interest is how Harris highlights the change in Longoria’s stance that is even obvious to the untrained eye:

In the top image, from 2015, Longoria has his feet shoulder-width apart, waiting before bringing his front foot forward as the pitch comes. In the 2016 (bottom) image, he begins with his legs wider and doesn’t need to move that front leg. This small change favors power and allows for increased loft, and paid off for the Rays third baseman. He may not hit 36 homers every season, but he certainly is prepared to be more of a power hitter than he was in 2014-2015.

In a 2015 DRaysBay post, Jared Ward noted Longoria’s struggles with pitches down and away. Let’s examine some zone profiles from 2015 and 2016 to see if there was any improvement with the new stance:

As he changed his approach, his batting average but more importantly his slugging percentage improved in the lower half of the zone where he’s been most heavily pitched the past couple of seasons. Granted, the adaptation coincided with a decrease in both high in the zone. This sort of thing canvary based on how a batter is attacked by pitchers, so it will be interesting to see how pitchers approach him this year. They will likely have to work hard to avoid middle to low in the zone pitches with Longo’s new swing path.

Unfortunately, he took a step backwards defensively in terms of UZR. The two time Gold Glover seems to have lost some range, as he missing a number of plays outside of the routine that you can see below

Both Zips and Steamer projections like a bit of bounceback for this season, so hopefully Longoria remains capable of holding down the hot corner.

Projections

What can we expect from Longo in 2016?

Zips and Steamer apparently think the 2016 offensive production was an anomaly, and project Longoria to regress to his 2014/2015 power profile. His above average exit velocity and improved launch angle, however, suggest their projected 50 percent drop in ISO is too pessimistic.

Additonally, if you consider his career wOBA is nearly .380 against southpaws, he’s a strong candidate to rebound from a .308 in 2016 to help offset some possible regression elsewhere (e.g. HR/FB).

I would more expect his stat line to look something like this:

Conclusion

Gone are the days when Evan Longoria was a top player in the league but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a 4+ fWAR player again. Father Time will eventually sap most of his skills and athleticism; however, Rays fans can rejoice that today is not that day. Longo has made the adjustments; he’s evolved his game; and he has a strong lineup around him, so you can look forward to a highly productive 2017.